The Future Is Full Frame: Will Canon and Nikon Ditch Crop-Sensor Cameras?

The Future Is Full Frame: Will Canon and Nikon Ditch Crop-Sensor Cameras?

The mirrorless tsunami is well under way. We have a wealth of full-frame options with new mounts, smaller flange distances, vastly improved EVFs, and smaller bodies. Given the dent that this is already putting in DSLR sales, what’s the next step? Sony already has a well-established range of crop-sensor mirrorless bodies, but will Canon and Nikon follow suit?

DSLRs have peaked. The technology has hit a wall in terms of its limitations and the scope for innovation is now incredibly narrow. As detailed in this thought-provoking article from TechCrunch, the biggest area for developments in camera technology is actually software, not hardware, and allowing a camera’s processor to see the scene exactly as it would be captured before the shutter is triggered is a major advantage that mirrorless cameras have over DSLRs. In-view exposure information is one significant advantage, and intelligent autofocus is even bigger. Other software-driven advantages may soon start to emerge, such as Fujifilm’s ability to capture a shot before you even pull the shutter.

The DSLR Hangover and What Comes Next

Given the evolution of full frame, bringing all of the advantages of mirrorless to APS-C would see the creation of some amazing cameras; consider the excitement if the long-overdue successor to the Canon EOS 7D Mark II were mirrorless. A sports and wildlife shooter with incredible autofocus, in-body stabilization, and professional video capabilities would be a monumental camera for Canon to bring to market.

Canon’s biggest disadvantage right now is the success of its DSLR range, and significantly, its depth. Having so many different bodies offering so many different features has been a huge market advantage, covering the first-time buyers through to the seasoned pros. With DSLRs, offering a range of features was easy because so much of it is governed by physical aspects such as the number of autofocus sensors and the frame rate. In a DSLR, the autofocus sensors sit separately from the sensor, gathering information from a secondary mirror, so stripping a couple of those away is relatively straightforward; fewer autofocus sensors, cheaper camera. Another example: frame rate is governed by the tiny servo that flips the mirror out of the way to allow an exposure, and putting a slower motor in is also a simple task. By contrast, with mirrorless cameras, autofocus is all about the sensor so there’s no separate batch of autofocus sensors doing the work, so not much opportunity for trimming. Plus, there’s no longer that giant mirror that needs to be flapped out of the way, allowing higher frame rates with less effort. When you also consider that the sensor curtains can be eliminated completely, suddenly we’re seeing frame rates of 30 frames per second and beyond.

Canon's Capacity to Cripple

For Canon, varying the frame rate, sensor size, and autofocus features made sense because they were all governed by different factors. With mirrorless, making those variations is not so simple, especially when you consider how the number of megapixels has plateaued in the last few years. The recently announced EOS RP offers an insight into why all of this might be a problem. 

For its budget full-frame mirrorless camera, Canon opted to use the sensor from the 6D Mark II and coupled it with the DIGIC 8, the processor from the 5D Mark IV and also used in the EOS R, Canon's first and currently flagship mirrorless camera. As a result, there’s very little that this combination inside the EOS RP can’t achieve in comparison to the EOS R, so instead of being able to build in limitations because of individual components, Canon is instead obliged to deliberately cripple certain features so that the RP doesn’t undermine the other cameras that it has for sale (or is planning for the future). For example, on the RP, Canon opted to remove 24 fps when shooting video at 1080p, remove 30 fps and Dual Pixel autofocus when shooting in 4K, and withhold C-Log. In theory, you could hack the firmware of the EOS RP and get a camera that’s just like the EOS R albeit with slightly fewer megapixels. One caveat would be that the battery life would be terrible and the body would probably overheat when shooting 4K 30 fps, and notably these are tradeoffs that Sony was less concerned about when rolling out the early iterations of its own full-frame and APS-C mirrorless offerings.

The EOS RP is a nice, affordable stills camera but fundamentally compromised in terms of its video features, though not because the technology is a limiting factor at that price, but because the manufacturer has deliberately disabled certain elements.

In summary, the switch to mirrorless brings some significant advantages to customers (such as autofocus that is faster, more intelligent, and with greater coverage), and countless headaches for manufacturers. Sony has pushed Canon and Nikon into designing products that they may have had no intention of creating, and it remains to be seen whether this continues with their APS-C cameras.

The Other Big Problem: Lenses and Mounts

One of Sony’s huge advantages was the early adoption of its mount, creating a system that crosses over with great agility between sensor sizes, however accidental that may have been. With Nikon and Canon’s notably wider mirrorless mounts, it might well be the case that Sony’s mount will feel quite limited in 10 years’ time when its competitors have squeezed all of the potential out of their new lens lineups. Until then, Nikon and Canon have to find a way of navigating three different types of lens and potentially a fourth if they choose to push forward with APS-C mirrorless. Consider this picture of the Sony a6400. In its appearance, it looks like little more than a lens mount with a battery and an LCD attached, and that lens mount is puny compared to the EOS R and the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7. To me it seems impossible that Canon or Nikon would ever contemplate trying to attach RF or Z lenses to a body that features such a small sensor.

Sony a6400

People smarter than me will offer greater insight into the numbers, but given that entry-level models like the Canon Rebels sell by the bucketload, getting this lens choice right could dramatically shape the future of these Japanese giants. 

Dial M for “Mmmm, Not Sure What to Do Here”

The other elephant in the room is that Canon’s fragmented range is not just about EF/EF-S/RF lenses. There’s also the small matter of the EOS M range and the EF-M lenses. Canon’s mirrorless crop-sensor body already exists in the shape of the EOS M50 and, if you plant the right speed booster on the front, you have yourself a skinny version of the RP.

Cross compatibility has been crucial for Canon, allowing users to upgrade from EF-S glass to EF glass (albeit with a compromise), and to ease the transition from APS-C to full frame, should they wish. With the EF-M range thrown into the mix, choosing the right path is not obvious. Do you ditch EF in favor of evolving M, or vice versa? Or do you ditch them both and build a new mount but with adapters to offer some flexibility? And do you give consumers the crossover they require or does that again risk compromising your product line? There are no easy answers here and Canon will almost certainly be criticized for whatever choice they make. With so many customers, there's a lot of people to keep happy.

What’s the Evidence for Mirrorless APS-C?

As of yet, the evidence regarding Canon and Nikon's next move is scant bar some minor rumors and muted speculation from the odd YouTuber. I wouldn’t be surprised if the manufacturers aren’t entirely sure either, with small teams researching the various options and each company periodically hosting awkward meetings where those in charge try and listen to their unfortunate minions and then attempt the impossible task of figuring out how to navigate the various lens conundra.

That said, with the almost constant noise surrounding mirrorless cameras over the last year or two, right now it’s hard to imagine either Canon or Nikon making a grand announcement about a DSLR. With the 7D Mark III thought to be arriving later this year, how do consumers feel about investing in a technology that is feeling increasingly dated? Of course, there will be many Canon fans itching to get the 7D, but plenty of others will be holding off, perhaps distracted by the likes of the Fujifilm X-T3 and X-T30. If Sony can pack so much autofocus performance into the a6400, a camera that costs less than a thousand dollars, why would tech-savvy buyers contemplating the 7D accept anything less for something that will probably cost twice as much?

Plan D (-itch APS-C)

Photo industry guru Tony Northrup strongly suspects that, following the launch of their full-frame bodies, Panasonic will quietly step away from crop sensors, despite assurances to the contrary. Similarly, in theory, there’s the possibility that Canon and Nikon will ditch their prosumer APS-C cameras and absorb those into their full-frame lineup. This comes at considerable cost as smaller sensors offer significant advantages for video shooters, including easier in-body stabilization, smaller bodies, and less heat to dissipate. Once again, Canon’s huge range of cameras is a barrier; Fujifilm has made a smart move by keeping all of its eggs in one basket (i.e., sticking with APS-C and ignoring full frame). By contrast, Canon now has to risk undermining itself at every stage. Whatever it chooses, the manufacturer probably has to push one of its formats under a bus.

Place Your Bets

This, of course, is all speculation, and people with far greater knowledge than me will no doubt pick holes in my patchy arguments and have their own ideas of what’s in store. I think from Twitter that Northrup is also trying to figure out what the future holds and I believe his money is on the fact that EF-M will soon be obsolete. Definitely keep an eye out for his forthcoming videos and, of course, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. Mirrorless is the future, and seeing how these two behemoths of the camera industry deals with the DSLR hangover will be fascinating.

Lead image by Noémi Macavei-Katócz via Unsplash.

Log in or register to post comments

25 Comments

Kyle Medina's picture

"The Future Is Full Frame"

No

Xander Cesari's picture

Wow so insightful! Really gave me a new perspective on cameras and gear.

Chris Taylor's picture

If I were in a position of power at Canon or Nikon, I would push to end DSLR lines or at least pare them down to perhaps three models; beginners, advanced and professional versions of DSLR is really all they need to have. Eventually, they would cut them entirely as they did with film cameras (Canon). I am still surprised they took this long to jump on the bandwagon because it all seems so obvious that mirrorless is the future, and it should have been on their radar all along. Mobile phones have killed point and shoots, so they focussed on pro and prosumer cameras, but that is all so much easier and more functional as well as attractive with mirrorless in this day and age I think.

I still love my Nikon D7500 and D7000, awesome ergonomics, batterylife and alot less expensive than fullframe camera's and their lenses!

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

canon and nikon will ditch cropped sensors to fit their existing lens lineups. it's already begun with the EOS RP. the continued development of a parallel lens lineup is cost intensive and mostly worthless from a business standpoint if full frame sensors can be made for a similar price. hence, the EOS RP being the first to bring full frame sensor cameras into a near-entry level price point.

as for other brands who've specialized in crop sensors, their future decisions are less certain. for every step full frame is able to advance, those benefits apply equally to smaller sensor cameras. full frame cameras will get smaller, as Canon has recently shown, but can never be as small as an equally equipped cropped sensor camera, because of physics.

with the Fujifilm X-Series and the new Olympus EM-1x, we'll see just how much smaller bodied cameras can persist in the professional and enthusiast space. some people just need a high quality but small camera body for their work, but how big that market is and if it can support continued innovation, we'll soon find out.

as for video, the introduction of an affordable larger than super 35 sensor with a global shutter is the only thing that will kill off crop sensor use in hybrid cameras. until then, limiting pan distortion is what ensures life for cameras like the GH5.

No I don't think the future will be full-frame. I actually think that both Sony and FujiFilm have a better future in showing a firm believe in the best for two worlds. There is an ever growing market for the crop-sensor FujiFilm and Sony camera's because they cater to the need of many pro and serious amateur photographers. Their excellent small and light-weight lenses prove their believe in the system.

Both Sony and FujiFilm also have a different line of very good but also rather expensive and rather heavy-weight glass for the pro photographers for commercial shoots and studio-work. Sony for their full-frame mirror-less. FujiFilm for their larger sensor camera's for commercial and studio-work.

Yes it may be true that both Canon and Nikon will stick to their new lines of full-frame mirror-less bodies. It does not seem very likely they will introduce crop-sensor camera's for their new lines of heavy and expensive lenses. I don't think they will introduce new lenses for crop-sensor camera's. They seem to have given up their market-shares to Sony and FujiFilm. They seem to be too far behind to make up.

Not entirely agree, I would choose full featured APSC instead of cripple FF.

Canon has a simple roadmap. To execute it DSLR cameras will fade away.

M series mirrorless cameras are the new consumer-oriented camera. These are the successor to the Rebel, and I'd actually use the Rebel name to emphasize that. These have EF-M mounts and APS-C sensors, and use EF-M lenses or EF lenses with the adapter. The M series can be made with a variety of features and price points from the simple M3-like to the M5/M50. One could build a video-rich M series that would keep the amateur and entry level videographers happy. One could build a higher end M that would be the successor to the 7Dm2 -- high frame rate, rugged construction, EF-M/EF lenses, and APS-C.

To make this work, Canon invests in a couple of good quality prime EF-M lenses to go with decent quality zooms, and encourages the use of the EF to EF-M adapter.

R series mirrorless cameras are the professional and prosumer camera. These are the successor to the xD and 80D. These have RF mounts, FF sensors, and RF lenses, using EF lenses with the adapter. The R series starts with a FF equivalent of a 6D (RP) and FF equivalent of a 7D, and go right through the 5D variations and up to the 1DX. These are work-horse, professional cameras with everything the pros need and are priced accordingly. The RP and the R(7Dm3) bodies would sit above the high-end M series camera and below the R and R(5D) bodies.

There you have it. Two sensor sizes each tied to a specific lens mount. EF lenses continue to work with either.

Andy Day's picture

I like your logic. Let's see. :D

Michael Jin's picture

If it was up to me, I would ditch APS-C entirely and just focus on filling that gap with affordable full frame options. Whether that is in the form of continuing production of older models as newer ones are released or creating lower end models, I think either option would make more sense than producing and maintaining a separate APS-C line with associated lenses.

They will make what people purchase. But I think both crop and full frame cameras are attaching customers.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Yeah. Once you go FF you never wanna go back.

This article is so contradictory

Nikon and Canon are on a race to the bottom whereas Sony and Fuji are steadily moving towards the top. Fuji was the first brand to convince me that crop could be as good if not better than most FF bodies, so no I don’t believe the future is FF.

David Pavlich's picture

With the introduction of the FIRST WAVE of Canon and Nikon into the mirror less FF ring, Sony's market share has already started to shrink. The rumors of a high performance D5 like mirror less body from Nikon and a pro body R from Canon will shrink Sony's FF share even more.

Nikon and Canon were smart in the fact that they wouldn't chase their base away with a new mount because they developed adapters that allow their terrific lens lineups to be used seamlessly with the new mounts. Canon was also quite smart to capitalize on their reputation as top line lens makers by introducing some excellent lenses with the new mount.

Canon and Nikon were also wise to base their new body design to be very DSLR like instead of the rectangular box that is a Sony. A lot of photographers dislike the smallish cameras, me included to the point that a Sony camera is a non starter.

I must say, though, that if I had the money, I'd have a Fuji.......GFX50s....very DSLR like in its structure.

Predicting the there's a race to the bottom for Canon and Nikon is just a bit premature.

Eric Salas's picture

That’s called simple math. When Sony was the only mirrorless option (everyone forgets canon already failed with mirrorless prior to the R) and you have two companies releasing bodies, obviously your market share will decrease...

There was one and now there are three; holy market share implosion!

David Pavlich's picture

You're absolutely correct. My post was more a poke at the Sony fan boys that were posting on other forums about how Sony had the best sales figures in the FF mirror less class. I probably should have mentioned that. Again, simple math. Of course you're number one because you're the only one.

I did read somewhere the Canon's M50 was the best selling mirror less camera in Japan. While it's one market, saying that Canon failed at mirror less is a bit of a stretch.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Well it's always reasuring to hear from 'experts'.

Why, god, why is the cover photo sourced from UNSPLASH? REALLY!????

Matthias Dengler's picture

"The Future is Full Frame" - Lol, the sales of Fuji cameras speak a different language!

Andy Day's picture

Lol, after the title, there's another 1700 words of nuance. 😂

In their dreams. Full frame cameras are not very much more expensive to build than APS-C cameras. But decent lenses for full frame are a lot harder to do - and much more profitable. The best selling aspect of full frame is greater bokeh (Bokeh - from the Japanese - translation - mucho dinero) but AI techniques in post processing will shortly be burying the need for optically derived bokeh. Full frame equates to expensive lenses and a lot more weight, and otherwise not that much quality improvement over smaller formats. Smaller sensor cameras are NOT going to go away.

I'd be interested in a D500 mirrorless variant. A Z500, if you will. I've only ever shot on APS-C. I also have the X-T3 and its a wonderful camera. Sensor size really doesn't sway my wallet. Show me any review that definitively tells you that sensor size determines your style of photography, and i'll find multiple photographers that can prove it wrong.

Features, Ergonomics, Lens Selection... and even sometimes Aesthetics are my main focus.(No pun intended)

Lee L's picture

I disagree that the only future is full frame. The key is the right tool for the right job.

If you are a working Pro then yes we have all been shooting FF for a long time so not a big deal.
But for the consumer who wants a small reasonably priced camera, FF is not the right solution.

One of the most popular camera is the Nikon D3600. This camera goes on sale for $396 with a lens.
It is light, easy to use and is 24mp APS-C

I can not tell you how many times I have seen Canon users who are shopping for a mirrorless camera and hear them say, "I am looking for a mirrorless camera because I am tried of carrying this heavy DSLR, but I want FF". The problem is a 70-200 f2.8 is EXACTLY the same on a FF mirrorless as it is on a DSLR so the weight saving is minimal.

Canon released a FF 50 f1.2 for the EOS R, which weights 2 LBS which does nothing to make the system lighter.
Full Frame glass is big and heavy. Look at the Sigma Art series, beautiful lenses but they are monsters.

Why APS-C Makes Sense
1. Lower cost
2. Lighter Lenses
3. Less expensive lenses
4. Continued improvement in low light and image quality

Actually I think Fuji has hit the right middle ground. They are not right for my work or clients but the image quality is fantastic and the size its a sweet spot.

So yes FF will continue to improve and become more cost effective but they will not replace smaller lighter cameras for a large segment of the market.

EL PIC's picture

Listen to the Experts at Canon ...

In 2005 they said Full Frame was the future..
In 2010 they said Long Lenes were too expensive and therefore APS C was better for Wildlife Photography..
In 2015 they said Mirrorless was for Women..
In 2019 they said Mirrorless was the future..
In 2025 they will say..

Clear as Mud.
I say when my hands get smaller ..
my cameras and lenes can get smaller.